Musings, Nits, and Praises: August 2007

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

Victims of the Cold War

The atrocities described in this article both sadden and infuriate me:

Inside the Nuclear Underworld: Deformity and Fear

By Matthew Chance

SEMEY, Kazakhstan (CNN) -- Kazakhstan's nuclear orphans are a distressing sight.

This young child slept at an orphanage, his deformities the result of nuclear testing in the region.

The first child I met in the local orphanage was lying limply in his crib. His giant, pale head was perched on his tiny shoulders, covered in bed sores, like a grotesquely painted paper-mâché mask. Peering out, a pair of tiny black eyes darted around.

It took me a few seconds to understand what I was seeing. The doctor told me he was 4 years old.

Through the bars in the next crib, I saw another child, twisted with deformities. His fragile legs and arms turned in impossible contortions.

These are the children of Kazakhstan's terrifying nuclear past.

Decades of Soviet nuclear testing unleashed a plague of birth defects. When the Soviet Union tested its nuclear devices, it chose eastern Kazakhstan, one of its remotest, most desolate areas. But no one bothered to evacuate the people living there. Watch the effects of nuclear bombs on villagers »

The testing began in 1949 at a site known as Polygon and continued until 1989. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, there were 456 tests, including 116 nuclear bombs tested above ground. The Polygon site officially closed on August 29, 1991 -- 16 years ago this week.

Local officials say there were hundreds of thousands of people, possibly as many as a million, who lived in the region during the nuclear testing. The end of the Cold War might have ended this dark chapter, but thousands are still paying a terrible price. Learn more about nuclear testing »

From the old Soviet city of Semipalatinsk, now renamed Semey, it was a long grueling drive across the barren, flat Kazakh plain. Nature can be hostile here, with temperatures hitting over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, then plunging to 40 below in winter.

The people living in the villages scattered throughout this former nuclear testing zone have been through the unspeakable. Seriqkaisha is 62 years old. She remembers watching the mushroom clouds as a child.

"We were very frightened," she told me, "because the windows in our house would blow out and the walls would shake. My parents both died of cancer, and my own son is handicapped."

Almost every family in Seriqkaisha's village, 20 miles from the old test site, is affected -- from cancers to impotency to birth defects and other deformities. See where the nuclear site is located »

Meeting people was proving hard. The genetic defections and illnesses that afflict so many here are frequently a source of shame. The doctor told me that people hide their deformed family members from outsiders. For decades, they have felt like animals in a zoo, she said, and had grown to distrust prying eyes.

The region also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to local health officials. Tragically, many young men who discover they are impotent -- one of the effects of nuclear fallout -- end their own lives.

A doctor introduced me to Biken -- one of the few residents who agreed to be interviewed. She was born in 1951, two years after the nuclear testing began. Her facial disfigurement, she said, has always brought her despair.

"If only there had been no bombs, I could have been equal to every one else. My youngest daughter looks like me too. I worry about her future, more than anything," Biken said.

It was heartbreaking to hear.

The problem of defects is so big, there's even a museum of mutations at the regional medical institute back in Semey, the largest city near the old nuclear testing site. It's a small room filled with jars containing deformed fetuses and human organs preserved in formaldehyde.

It's hard to look at them -- babies with bulging eyes and malformed brains, or conjoined twins locked in a contorted embrace.

The head of the institute, Tolebae Rakhipbekov, showed me around and told me how this house was more than just a grim collection of anomalies.

It was the reality for some parents, and a real fear for everyone who lives here.

"You could call these children, and others affected, victims of the Cold War. Kazakhstan has refused nuclear ambitions now because it experienced 40 years of this war. Nowhere else were there so many nuclear tests," Rakhhipbekov said.

And nowhere else, I suppose, are so many Cold War injustices still being felt.

Of, course our country's hands are blood-stained, too. Although the U.S. employed less egregious methods of nuclear testing than the Soviets did, our own testing led to cancers and health problems in hundreds of thousands of people. Check out this National Geographic article:

"Encountering" God

There's a lot of talk these days among mainstream Christian traditions of "encountering" or "experiencing" God. Now, encountering/experiencing God would seem a worthy aim, but as it's often defined, it leans toward an emotionally-based concept--getting warm, fuzzy feelings about God. As I see it the focus on emotion poses several problems.

First, some folks simply aren't warm, fuzzy-feeling people. Some people are geared to intellectual, pensive worship. Most of the time I am one of those people. So does that mean I can't experience whatever it means to "experience" God? As I mentioned in the last thread, there are times that worship overwhelms me emotionally, but that doesn't happen frequently. Besides the fact that getting emotional in worship may have little to do with what it means to experience God (I think we sometimes get infatuated with our view of God rather than searching fervently to find who He actually is), many churches seem geared to evoking one emotion: happiness. Personally, I'd like to see worship services that encompass a fuller range of emotions. I mean, look at the Psalms. Sure, there are songs of praise, but there are plenty songs of lament, pleading, confession, and frustration, too. I'd find it impossible to sing songs like "I Was Made for This" if I were grieving the illness or death of a loved one.

Another problem with an emotionally-defined experience of God is that sometimes God seems nowhere to be found. Going back to Mother Teresa, she struggled through forty years of painful doubting, unable to "sense" His presence and at times even questioning His existence. Yet she exhibited more abandon to Christ's cause than most of us would ever hope to--or, to be honest, ever want to.

The last problem I have with the notion of experiencing God is that we typically speak of it in context of corporate worship. I'm all for having meaningful worship services (although I don't think dynamic is tantamount to meaningful), but participating in an incredibly stirring worship service once a week would do about as much to deepen my faith as spending only an hour with my wife once a week would deepen my relationship with her.

I'd contend that we "encounter" God when we're in community with other Christians--and that entails much more than sharing the same room with them once or twice a week--and when we're serving others. Returning one last time to Mother Teresa, although she had little if any emotional contentment, based on Christ's teaching in Matthew 25, she experienced Christ in the most profound way possible.

Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Here's the review I wrote for Lost at Sea:

Coming only a year after the stunning The Animal Years, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter finds the Idaho-born troubadour boldly claiming musical territory with a reinvented sound, turning from the meticulous arrangements and somber ruminations of his previous album to a more daring, moxie-charged approach that yields some of the freshest, most captivating songs of his career.

The album opens with the delightfully clattering “To the Dogs or Whoever,” a song that demands repeated listening not only because it’s ridiculously catchy but also because you can only grasp about half the lyrics the first time around. Backed by a jangling guitar and pounding piano and drums, Ritter, as literate as ever, delivers a dizzying array of images and allusions ranging from Joan of Arc to the Crimean War before the chorus storms in like a saloon sing-along: “In the dark I thought I heard somebody callin’/ In the dark I thought I heard somebody call.” That sort of boisterousness is in no short supply on Conquests. Whether they’re tearing through galloping country-western (“Next to the Last Romantic”) or bursting into a Steinway-pounding frenzy (“Real Long Distance”), Ritter and his band mates are definitely having themselves a good time.

On the swaggering, piano-punctuated “Mind’s Eye,” Ritter adopts the persona of a gunslinger who’s grown tired of feeble challengers: “I’m putting up with you lightweights/ Calling me out to the middle of the street/ Oh I’ve got you in my mind’s eye/ I’ve got you in my mind’s eye.” On “Rumors” he adds even more muscle to piano/percussion-headed strut with a husky horn section while on the propulsive “Open Doors,” he strips things down to a spare, low-fi arrangement of acoustic guitar and drums.

Ritter’s songcraft is no less superb when he smooths the edges of his sound. The bittersweet gem “Empty Hearts” coasts on one of his finest gentle melodies. A retro string arrangement and soulful horns fill out the breezy first single, “Right Moves,” as Ritter sings of the difficulty of rekindling a relationship with a former lover: “Am I making all the right moves?/ Am I singing you the right blues?/ Is there a chance that I could call you/ Just to see how you are doing?” On the spellbinding ballad “The Temptation of Adam,” perhaps the best song on the album, strings, muted horns, and a bass clarinet enhance the melancholy of Ritter’s acoustic figures. A love story set in a missile silo, the song moves from tender to unsettling as the narrator worries his relationship with his Marie will dissolve once they return to the surface: “As our time grows short I get a little nervous/ I think about the Big One, W.W. I.I.I./ Would we ever really care the world had ended?/ You could hold me here forever like you’re holding me tonight/ I look at that great big red button and I’m tempted.”

Ritter’s relaxed, free-spirited approach does lead to a few superfluous moments. The brief instrumental “Edge of the World” and the apparently unfinished “Moons” certainly could’ve been omitted, and the ethereal “Wait for Love,” though decidedly pretty, isn’t as strong as the full-bodied version of the song that closes the album. But with an album this good, what are a few short detours?

It’s a mystery how Ritter has been so under-appreciated in the States to this point in his career. As a masterful storyteller, playful and profound, with the ability to clear new paths in traditional genres, Ritter is likely more deserving than any other songwriter of his generation to be lauded as “the next Dylan.” And with a growing list of musical conquests to his credit, it’s not hard to imagine a time when writers will celebrate “the next Josh Ritter.”

Lit Bit #6

Here's a poem by Bob Hicok, one of my favorite contemporary American poets. The poem appeared in the May issue of Poetry.

O my pa-pa
by Bob Hicok

Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop.
They sit in a circle of disappointment over our fastballs
and wives. We thought they didn't read our stuff,
whole anthologies of poems that begin, My father never,
or those that end, and he was silent as a carp,
or those with middles which, if you think
of the right side as a sketch, look like a paunch
of beer and worry, but secretly, with flashlights
in the woods, they've read every word and noticed
that our nine happy poems have balloons and sex
and giraffes inside, but not one dad waving hello
from the top of a hill at dusk. Theirs
is the revenge school of poetry, with titles like
"My Yellow Sheet Lad" and "Given Your Mother's Taste
for Vodka, I'm Pretty Sure You're Not Mine."
They're not trying to make the poems better
so much as sharper or louder, more like a fishhook
or electrocution, as a group
they overcome their individual senilities,
their complete distaste for language, how cloying
it is, how like tears it can be, and remember
every mention of their long hours at the office
or how tired they were when they came home,
when they were dragged through the door
by their shadows. I don't know why it's so hard
to write a simple and kind poem to my father, who worked,
not like a dog, dogs sleep most of the day in a ball
of wanting to chase something, but like a man, a man
with seven kids and a house to feed, whose absence
was his presence, his present, the Cheerios,
the PF Flyers, who taught me things about trees,
that they're the most intricate version of standing up,
who built a grandfather clock with me so I would know
that time is a constructed thing, a passing, ticking fancy.
A bomb. A bomb that'll go off soon for him, for me,
and I notice in our fathers' poems a reciprocal dwelling
on absence, that they wonder why we disappeared
as soon as we got our licenses, why we wanted
the rocket cars, as if running away from them
to kiss girls who looked like mirrors of our mothers
wasn't fast enough, and it turns out they did
start to say something, to form the words hey
or stay, but we'd turned into a door full of sun,
into the burning leave, and were gone
before it came to them that it was all right
to shout, that they should have knocked us down
with a hand on our shoulders, that they too are mystified
by the distance men need in their love.

#%*_@!!! Red Sox!

I know it's bad of me to wish Eric Gagne would suffer an unspecified and injury and be place on the DL indefinitely, but I can't help thinking it would help the team. Of course, scoring some runs off the other teams' so-so pitchers would also help. I knew the Sox' big lead early in the season wouldn't last. But even with the Yankees' hot streak, if the Sox hadn't stunk for the past two months (only three games over .500 since June 1st), they'd be coasting to a division title. Instead, they seem to invent new ways to blow games. I'm anticipating yelling at the TV quite a bit when they play the Yankees at the end of this month.

Mother Teresa's "Dark Night of the Soul"

As someone who grapples with his faith quite regularly, I was instantly intrigued when I saw a copy of First Things with an article entitled "The Dark Night of Mother Teresa" by Carol Zaleski on our "up for grabs" table at school today. You can read the entire article here (Sorry, the "insert a link" doesn't show up as an option at work for some reason):

Zaleski explains how Teresa began her work with the destitute and sick in India with a real sense of God's presence, even a vision of Christ. However, in the decades that followed, she often struggled with intense doubts. Here are some of the more salient passages from the article:

"The Dark Night. Throughout 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced a profound union with Christ. But soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death. It is hard to know what is more to be marveled at: that this twentieth-century commander of a worldwide apostolate and army of charity should have been a visionary contemplative at heart; or that she should have persisted in radiating invincible faith and love while suffering inwardly from the loss of spiritual consolation. In letters written during the 1950s and 1960s to Fr. Van Exem, Archbishop Périer, and to later spiritual directors, Fr. L. T. Picachy, S.J., and Fr. J. Neuner, S.J., she disclosed feelings of doubt, loneliness, and abandonment. God seemed absent, heaven empty, and bitterest of all, her own suffering seemed to count for nothing, “. . . just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”

"The dark night of Mother Teresa presents us with an even greater interpretive challenge than her visions and locutions. It means that the missionary foundress who called herself “God’s pencil” was not the God-intoxicated saint many of us had assumed her to be. We may prefer to think that she spent her days in a state of ecstatic mystical union with God, because that would get us ordinary worldlings off the hook. How else could this unremarkable woman, no different from the rest of us, bear to throw her lot in with the poorest of the poor, sharing their meager diet and rough clothing, wiping leprous sores and enduring the agonies of the dying, for so many years without respite, unless she were somehow lifted above it all, shielded by spiritual endorphins? Yet we have her own testimony that what made her self-negating work possible was not a subjective experience of ecstasy but an objective relationship to God shorn of the sensible awareness of God’s presence."

". . . by converting her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God. It would be her Gethsemane, she came to believe, and her participation in the thirst Jesus suffered on the Cross. And it gave her access to the deepest poverty of the modern world: the poverty of meaninglessness and loneliness. To endure this trial of faith would be to bear witness to the fidelity for which the world is starving. “Keep smiling,” Mother Teresa used to tell her community and guests, and somehow, coming from her, it doesn’t seem trite. For when she kept smiling during her night of faith, it was not a cover-up but a manifestation of her loving resolve to be “an apostle of joy.”
One can better understand, having read The Soul of Mother Teresa, why she insisted that adoration of Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament should occupy the center of the Missionaries’ daily work; and why she felt it imperative to establish purely contemplative communities that would make the Missionaries of Charity an order of adoration as well as apostolic service. Adoring Christ in the Sacrament is also a way of dark knowing and dark loving. To all appearances he is absent, as Aquinas says in the Tantum ergo Sacramentum, so faith must supply what is lacking to our feeble senses. Humanly, there were times when Mother Teresa felt burnt out, but faith supplied what was lacking even to troubled faith; spiritually she was often desolate, but her vow endured and her visible radiance-to which everyone attests-was undiminished. This lifelong fidelity should not be confused with a Stoic determination to keep going in the face of defeat. It was something else entirely: objective Christian joy."

In one sense her feelings of abandonment were very much akin to Christ's struggles in Gethsemane. And perhaps that's one of the most profound ways in which Christ participated in our sufferings. But although her life is certainly a testament of perservering faith, the skeptic in me asks why she would so fully abandon her life to her faith when she felt no "sensible awareness of God's presence." Sure, the Bible speaks of God as a comforter, but how can someone derive comfort with no sense of God's presence? My wife wouldn't believe that I love her if all I did was tell her so. I have to actively demonstrate that love. Of course, one could argue that God, in Christ, has offered the ultimate demonstration of His love. I agree. But if He was willing to do something of that nature, why not decidedly smaller demonstrations of His presence? I mean, I'd like to think that someone who sacrificed her life as Teresa did would get some assurances from God once in a while. Was it because God felt she didn't need them? I know people often speak of God comforting them in suffering. I, too, have felt the same way at times. But are we comforted by God's presence or solely by our belief in Him acting as a coping mechanism? Is there any way to know the answer?

Lit Bit #5

Another of my favorite poems

"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

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